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Shaming Sentence for Joan Orie Melvin: Does it Go Too Far?
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On its surface, it was a routine case: a former Pennsylvania judge was convicted of using government staff and resources for her own personal election campaign. Yet it is the unusual punishment that was handed down, seemingly designed to humiliate more than deter, that has many legal commentators wondering if her sentence might have gone beyond what was necessary or even enforceable.

In a story covered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Judge Lester Nauhaus sentenced former justice Joan Orie Melvin, convicting her on six criminal counts of improperly using her staff to help her run for an election campaign to superior court. As punishment, Orie Melvin has been sentenced to three years of house arrest and two years of probation. However, Judge Nauhaus also included additional aspects to Orie Melvin’s punishment that critics argue seem specifically designed to punish Orie Melvin through humiliation. Specifically, Orie Melvin was asked to walk into the chambers room after the sentencing, be handcuffed, and then publicly photographed. Orie Melvin was then required, as part of the terms of her punishment, to make copies of the photograph and mail them to 500 jurists in Pennsylvania, along with a written apology. Orie Melvin’s attorney plans to appeal the conviction.


To some, the sentence seemed draconian and unnecessary. Others questioned whether the aspects of the sentence were even enforceable. In an interview with the Post-Gazette, Widener University professor Jules Epstein noted that even after a conviction, the defendant retains 5th Amendment protection from self-incrimination. Requiring Orie Melvin to publicly apologize – in spite of the fact that she continues to maintain her innocence and plans to appeal – calls this right into question.

Her defenders argue that the shaming aspects of Orie Melvin’s sentence are unrelated to the law, and that there is little evidence that including such measures deters crime. Some likened it to archaic methods of punishing wrongdoers by putting them in the stocks on public display; others noted by humiliating the offender, their family members are often equally (and unfairly) punished.

Judge Nauhaus’ comments at the sentencing hearing provide insight into his intentions: Nahaus noted that Orie Melvin’s actions had brought shame to the Pennsylvania judiciary. Certainly, the court-released images of Orie Melvin in handcuffs will more than give her a taste of the shame that she has bestowed on the bench.

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Image Credit: AP Photo / Keith Srakocic


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